Audience response

It’s been really interesting (and encouraging) for me to see that the new issue of the US based journal Public Art Dialogue (Vol.2. Issue 1, 2012) is dedicated to the theme of ‘Audience Response’, one of the research areas that I am focusing on in my own work here in NewcastleGateshead. In this post, I make some initial observations on two of the articles contained here, expecting to return for a closer read of these texts and the whole issue as part of my formal ‘Public art and audience’ literature review.

Among the different perspectives gathered in this issue, Kate MacNeill’s article ‘Narratives of Public Art: Yellow Peril, Vault and a Large Yellow Object’ was a particularly informative and engaging read. Focusing on a 1980’s sculptural commission for the City of Melbourne, MacNeill combines tales of political controversy with a new ‘human-object’ centred approach (drawn from ‘material culture’ studies) to trace the 20 year agency and mutation of ‘Vault’ from unique ‘artwork’, to ‘discursive object’, to physical play-thing/functional structure and back to ‘artwork’ status again. A current state, which in MacNeill’s words seems more emptied out than celebratory: “No longer climbed upon, rarely sheltered under except perhaps on a rainy day by those making their way from the gallery to the Victorian College of the Arts, the large yellow object is acknowledged as an artwork and defined by its sheer uselessness.” (p.29). 

This object-oriented view is further explored in Quentin Stevens’ well illustrated article ‘Visitor Responses at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial: Contrary to Conventions, Expectations and Rules’. In his case study, based on extensive first hand observation of the memorial, Stevens offers an analysis of “the interpretive, emotional, and bodily aspects” (p.37) of the work’s reception. In the article he describes four key factors that shape audience experiences of this work: the architect’s original vision which deliberately intended to elicit a bodily (rather than a contemplative) audience response;  the specific physical and ‘minimalist’ (block/grid) form of the work; the publicly displayed rules for use of the site; and the size and presence of the audience itself as an observer/regulator of the site and of others’ interactions with it. Having set out his observations and analysis Steven’s concludes by suggesting that “these parameters might also prove useful for studying, predicting, and shaping the reception of public artworks generally, with emphasis differing according to the materiality, placement, and meanings of any given work, as well as the anticipated size and composition of its audience, and how their behaviour is managed.” (p.54.) An analytical structure that I may well pick up on in planning and carrying out my own observational case studies.

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